Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Meetings and the Limits of Government Transparency

Meetings and the Limits of Government Transparency

Dennis D. McDonald

The title of this article is “Meetings and the Limits of Government Transparency.” No, I’m not writing about NSA, Snowden, or national security. I’m writing about some government staff meetings and how open they should be to the public.

The topic came up this morning at a breakfast meeting in Washington DC titled “Performance Management Forum” sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Deloitte.

Speakers were Beth Blauer of Socrata and Richard Beck, Director of Planning and Performance Management, U.S. Department of Interior. Jitinder Kohli of Deloitte Consulting moderated.

Blauer spoke about her time as director for StateStat for Maryland. Beck discussed implementing quarterly reviews at his department, the results of which are public data (More about that web site is here.)

The use of staff meetings were key to both efforts. How meetings were actually used differed somewhat between the two.

At the Department of Interior Beck reported that four formal quarterly performance review meetings were of the focus of performance measurement efforts. These were used to track program performance based on a well selected set of quantitative performance indicators tied to a specific set of agency goals. Beck discuss the work involved in defining the goals and metrics and how they went about getting people to work together to make  the formal quarterly reviews as meaningful as possible. The performance measures in some cases can serve as indicators of which programs need more formal evaluation or assessment.

Blauer’s experience in the Maryland state government working for the governor was somewhat different. She and her staff conducted hundreds of meetings as part of a Governor-driven ongoing process of making data and performance measures as publicly available as possible in an environment where heavy organizational siloing had been common.

One theme running through both presentations was a desire to focus on fewer high quality performance measures rather than lots of measures describing program  inputs or processes. Another theme was the need to show deference to subject matter experts when the different elements of program performance were being discussed undeveloped. In both cases, the outcome of both efforts was on public access to performance data via public websites and pages providing a range of display, download, search, and visualization features.

In other words, the desired output of various intermediate processes was to make data available to the public. But what about the process by which the performance measures are defined, selected, refined, measured, and collected? If all this work is flowing through a series of meetings attended by government employees, shouldn’t these meetings also be open and accessible to the public?

I posed that question from the floor. The response I got was not unexpected: Beck and Blauer both questioned the value of exposing sometimes sensitive issues to open scrutiny. Both felt that candor might be lost in planning meetings if it was known that, say, a video feed was being provided.

In some ways this is the same old “people don’t want to see how the sausage is being made” argument we’ve come to expect from government officials. The problem is, when meetings are closed to the public due to the need to openly and candidly potentially sensitive topics, some members of the public are bound to interpret the secrecy in different ways depending on the level of trust and understanding that already exist for government actions.

Ironically, one way to engender public trust is to make government more open, accessible, and transparent. One problem with making the meetings leading up to the publishing of performance data more accessible is that the discussions held at such meetings don’t always have anything direct to say about what the public cares about, which is often an answer to a question like “what good is this program/department/agency/project mean to me/my family/my neighborhood/my company?”

Beck pointed out that, just because a meeting is “closed to the public,” does not mean the meeting’s existence or any official documentation associated with it also needs to be secret. There are ways to show that meetings are part of “government doing its job” that don’t necessarily require realtime public access and participation. 

I have to agree. Just as I’m not a “nut” about online privacy, I’m also not an “absolutist” about government openness and transparency. I’d say my approach is based more on a “common sense” than ideology. Read Should your child’s vaccination history be a matter of public record to see what I mean. Also, my personal experience with such questions is partly based on my serving as Secretary for 6 years on the Board of Trustees of a private school. I was responsible for producing the minutes. I do remember the need to occasionally conduct “executive sessions” when sensitive topics such as annual tuition hikes, real estate purchases, and faculty performance reviews were discussed. In such cases I tended to maximize reporting about the nature of the discussions while minimizing the recording of details that could be associated with any one individual. Again, I think there are common sense decisions one makes “…drawing the line.”

Still, there is a danger that public servants “shoot themselves in the foot” by insisting on too much secrecy and I’m not referring here just to national security issues. As suggested in The EPA’s mobile website is great (except for one thing) public employees need to make themselves more accessible to the public. Person-to-person communication, even if conducted online, by telephone, or via social media, is one way to connect with and generate public support by “putting a face” on government. If people know and trust their public servants it seems reasonable to me that the likelihood of knee-jerk anti-bureaucrat reactions can be reduced when the going gets tough.

The focus on making government performance data more open and accessible is a good thing. Yes, there is still the need to provide “context” surrounding the data to make a truly meaningful and, yes, there will be the need to be have commonsense rules surrounding what can be considered private or sensitive. Based on what I heard this morning, though, we appear to be moving in the right direction.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald

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